A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full
hands;How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any
more than he.
Today we will address the subject of what is poetry to the literate man. For poetry inhabits a span between that which appears indefinable and that which we know to be absolutely necessary. It is the link between hunger and food. It is the effort that finally leads our philosophical thoughts into the positive sphere of action. It is the microscopic distance from synapse to synapse in our brains. And it is the vast yet palpable darkness from star to star in the night sky.
Poetry might be understood to be the great connector of the universe. It is what essentially allows us to name things, and thus to begin to have an understanding of their unique presences. For while the exact substance of a material may be unknown to us, we can get an idea of what something is, once we have established at least a sense of what its individual nature comprises.
We come to know people like this as well, for it is certain that different persons embody different characteristics, which directly lead to our formation of opinions about them. Some of the most recognizable names of all time are those who strongly represent to us inner qualities that became associated with historical precedents. Achilles, Moses, Buddha, Michelangelo, Napoleon, Shakespeare; each has a specific poetry to it.
The literate man might ask himself, what does poetry mean to me today? As the process of human invention accelerates, our desire to connect with one another (and ourselves) is also at an all time high. We find ourselves in a landscape of separate entities, where expanding options threaten to rip the fabric of social consciousness apart. Now, more than ever, poetry can provide us with a coherent view of our shared existence.
The best way to show how poetry works is to compare it to something as elusive and necessary as love. For the best poetry leaves a very lasting impression. It has the resonance of a thousand moments that came before it, embodies the spirit of dreams, and happiness. Poetry, like love, cuts through the complexity of life to present a simple, undeniable truth. We care for one another in a way that ultimately transcends language, yet find vital approximations in words. Poetry is a man’s love in just a few words.
When perhaps the greatest American poet Walt Whitman repeated a line from a child’s voice in one of his poems that asked, "what is the grass?," he was getting at a question essential to the literate man and to humanity in general. For it is how we relate to the world around us that defines who we are, and by extension, how we come to view each other in this life.
What is the grass? (from Song of Myself)
by Walt Whitman
A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it is any
more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say Whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the
same, I receive them the same.
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken
soon out of their mother's laps,
And here you are the mothers' laps.
This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.
O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues,
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring
taken soon out of their laps.
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
at the end to arrest it,
And ceas'd the moment life appear'd.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and